Language Learning Tool Reviews: Flashcards – That Ubiquitous Mid-Tech Stepping Stone

Hiroshima-ken JET Jonathan Fisher reviews various tools for learning Japanese, including books, websites, flashcards, podcasts and more. Tools are rated on a scale of 1 to 5 stars, with 5 being the best.

By Jonathan Fisher

White Rabbit Press Kanji Flashcards [xrr rating=4/4]

Tuttle Kanji Flashcards

[xrr rating=3/3]

Tuttle Japanese Vocabulary Flashcards

[xrr rating=4/4]

Your Own Hand-Made Flashcards

[xrr rating=5/5]

So far, the majority of reports in this column have focused on two areas – the very high-tech (web sites, electronic software and hardware), and the old-fashioned comfort of books – but there is a great deal of ground to cover in between these two technological poles.

Flashcards are a fantastic device, particularly for those students who find themselves in the tactile/kinesthetic spectrum of learning styles. The basic structure of flashcards – decks and stacks of linked information – is not only useful for learning, it is also a very efficient, mid-tech model of data organization, which finds expression in much more complex systems like the Internet. Indeed, some of the best applications for learning language to be found on the Internet are merely large, computerized stacks of multimedia flashcards, in some cases having other functionality built into them as well.

But for the purpose of this article, I will focus on plain old cardboard flashcards, the type you’ve likely dealt with coming up through primary and secondary schools, as well as even post-secondary school. Instead of historical facts and dates, or organic molecules and nomenclature, flashcards for learning language generally contain a word or phrase, along with its translation or definition. The Japanese language flashcards which are available are no different, and are generally divided into three main categories: those used to study vocabulary, those used to study kana, and those used to study kanji.

Tuttle and White Rabbit Press both make several great sets of flashcards, which can be used to study vocabulary, kana and kanji. As of yet, White Rabbit does not make a set of flashcards specifically geared towards Japanese vocabulary learning. However, their kanji cards are superior to Tuttle’s on two counts. First, the White Rabbit cards include information on bushu radicals, the “building block” pieces that comprise each kanji character. As Heisig, in his important book on learning kanji (previously reviewed) describes at great length, knowing the radicals makes learning the kanji they comprise much, much easier. Second, the White Rabbit Cards are organized based on the guidelines of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), rather than along the lines of Japanese public school curriculum. So, while it is interesting to note what kanji native Japanese speakers are learning at what point in their education (1st through 12th grade), using that information as an organizational scheme for non-native Japanese learners is not so wise. Thus, White Rabbit Press has created a set of kanji flash cards which conforms to the existing infrastructure for learning Japanese as a foreign language, and as a result is much more convenient and easy to use.

The Tuttle vocabulary cards (“Japanese in a Flash” series) are far more useful than their counterparts intended for learning kanji. As I shuffle through some of the example sentences given, though, I am reminded that, while they may not look so tantalizingly crisp, or be printed so neatly, your own hand-made flashcards are often the best choice for learning vocabulary quickly. Perhaps this is an obvious point, but the time that you spend selecting example sentences, writing them down, and carefully checking them in order to create your own set of flashcards, is time incredibly well spent committing important linguistic structures to memory. It’s the time you essentially skip over when you decide to buy a set of pre-made flash cards. True, for some people, myself included, there is a motivational factor that comes along with the prospect of studying with a shiny, neatly printed set of commercially produced flashcards. However, for the true kinesthete or tactile learner, it will be difficult to surpass the experience of creating your own personalized set of flashcards, particularly when trusted guide books such as Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji are available to help you along the way.

The more I study language, the more appeal flashcards have for me, whether they are the scraggly, familiar paper flashcards of our youth, or some slick new flashcard application available on the Internet (see Anki or smart.fm). Using flashcards has even caused me to wonder if the structure of our minds is not just some big, mysterious, neuro-biological stack of flashcards. But I suppose that’s the beginning of a different article for a different publication.